By the time your child has reached his first birthday, you've probably put 3 a.m. feedings behind you and your little one is ready for a new kind of healthy sleep routine—preferably one that involves a little more time to snooze on the weekend! Teaching your little one healthy sleeping habits is a long-term project, and there's much for him to learn in his second year. At this age, he's likely sprouting up like a weed and more physically active with every day. All this growth and development makes sleep more important than ever.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes indicates that a growth hormone in your child's body is released during sleep, making a solid snooze schedule and frequent naps imperative to his development. While munching on green veggies is touted as the way to help children become big and strong, the truth's that sleep is just as important. Overcoming new obstacles with your 1-year-old can be tricky at times, but with planning, practice and persistence, you'll get him the rest he needs. Here are some sleep schedule changes you can expect after your child's first birthday, as well as tips for helping your baby catch the z's he needs.
- Riding the Cycle. By the time your baby turns 1, you're likely enjoying the fact that he's sleeping 6-8 hours through the night. Although this continuous rest doesn't reflect it, your baby's still going through multiple sleep cycles in a night—which explains why he's still waking up in the middle of the night. "If kids learn to fall asleep independently, they won't have to call out or try to find their parents when they wake in the night," says Dr. Dawn Huebner, PhD and author of What to do When you Dread your Bed. If he cries out at night, you can comfort him by patting his back until he feels better, but the key is to leave him in his crib. By not hugging and holding him, he'll learn he can put himself back to sleep and doesn't need to cry out for you.
- Set the Routine. The key to a successful bedtime routine is consistency and predictability. In fact, something as low-key as brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, reading a story and listening to the same songs every night is usually just the thing. "Having a variable routine is not useful to kids," says Dr. Brett R. Kuhn PhD, a behavioral psychologist and co-author of The Toddler Owner's Manual. As long as your keep the bedtime routine unchanging, your little one will reap the benefits.
- Lay Down the Law. Now that your child's old enough to ask for things, like extra hugs and one more story before bed, you'll have to lay down the law. "Bedtime routines are important but overrated and rarely sufficient," says Dr. Kuhn. It's important to enforce that bedtime is when we rest, while still remaining positive through tough bouts of screaming and crying. Avoid bedtime meltdowns by singing a special "brush your teeth" song, or giving your little one a cuddly toy reserved for nighttime only.
- Cat Naps. It might be tempting to forego a nap or two to get your baby tuckered out for bedtime, but naps are still crucial for your rambunctious one-year-old. Although every child is unique, Dr. Kuhn recommends 2 naps per day for kids until they are 18-24 months old. "Kids without enough sleep are more irritable and less attentive," says Dr. Huebner. When your child starts to get glassy-eyed in the morning or early afternoon, take the time to lay him down in his bed or crib for some refreshing shut-eye. Soothing music and a dark room will make nap time easier.
- Cuddle Time. If you're trying to teach sleep independence, skip snuggling your baby to sleep. "Parents often enjoy the bonding that happens when they cuddle their child to sleep, but in time this habit can make a child absolutely dependent on having the parent's body right there as they fall to sleep," says Dr. Huebner. Get lots of cuddles in during the day, but try to tuck your baby in with just a simple hug and kiss. This will make it easier for you to leave the room in the evening, and give your tired child the chance to doze off on his own.
- Keep it Positive. Having him fall asleep on his own can cause tears and whimpers, which is heartbreaking for any parent. You may hear that tough love—ignoring your child's cries—is the only way to go, but there are more positive ways to foster sleep independence. "Go through the bedtime routine, then [when your child is in bed, but still awake] leave the room for just a few seconds," suggests Dr. Kuhn. "Then come back and compliment your child on his or her good behavior"—provided he stayed quiet, that is! Be sure to keep your re-entry to praise your child's good behavior unpredictable and do it often, spacing out the visits over time. This method will help smooth the transition to bedtime, while reinforcing the behavior you want.
There are bound to be some bumps in the road when it comes to your baby's sleeping habits, but with time, patience, love and expert advice, you'll be able to get everyone in the house sleeping peacefully.